"Let's go sharking!" Capt. Tommy Morrow yelled enthusiastically. He slowed the twin engines of the Craigearn to a halt as the mate prepared the bait, using a small tuna we had caught hours earlier.
Sharks are bottom-dwellers, so we drifted slowly as the bait descended to the ocean floor. The strike came almost immediately. The reel clicked loudly as the shark stripped line off, and the mate rushed to get into position. In just a few seconds, most of the line had disappeared into the water, and the mate shouted at the captain to back up the boat before we ran out. Diesel engines roared to life as the shark led us out to sea.
Half an hour later, I lost the battle. Like many overeager anglers, I failed to keep slack out of the line, and the shark worked the hook free. Joining the fraternity of fishermen everywhere, all I had was a memory of the big one that got away.
Big game sportfishing is back. Popularized by literary legends Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey in the first half of the century, the sport is enjoying a resurgence. Increased environmental awareness, new challenges in light tackle, lucrative tournaments and worldwide availability of quality charters have drawn many participants to the sea.
The thrill of landing a big fish must be experienced to be appreciated. The typical freshwater fly fisherman, for instance, stalks trout weighing a few pounds. Record marlin tip the scales at well over half a ton, and large sharks can weigh twice that. Because these fish are capable of snapping even the heaviest line with a single tug, it is no wonder so many of these magnificent creatures get away.
Offshore sportfishermen primarily target three types of fish: billfish, tunas and sharks. Secondary quarry include wahoo, mahi mahi, jacks and king mackerel.
In many parts of the world, sharks are not hunted for sport, but avoided, as they often devour more desirable game fish that are on the hook. Yet there is a growing fascination with these dangerous predators, which are actively pursued in Australia, California and the U.S. Northeast. The lure is simple: the shark is the biggest of all game fish, and the great white is the biggest shark, with specimens exceeding two tons. Other popular game sharks are tigers, makos and hammerheads.
Tunas are the "original" sportfish, and the earliest offshore fishing clubs were built around their pursuit. One reason for their popularity is the widespread availability of many species of large tuna in waters around the world. Another is that they are powerful fish, diving deep and giving an unrelenting fight. Unlike many large fish, they travel in schools, making multiple, simultaneous strikes commonplace. The biggest prize is the giant bluefin, occasionally breaking a thousand pounds, although much smaller yellowfin are very popular.
But for the serious sportfisherman, billfish are in a class by themselves. Due to their beauty, speed and acrobatic leaping ability, the various types of sailfish, spearfish and marlin are the backbone of major tournaments, and the most sought-after fish. The ultimate prize is the fourth species of billfish, the broadbill swordfish, whose rarity makes it just an elusive dream for most anglers.
Zane Grey, no slouch of a fisherman, described the broadbill in his 1927 short story, "Xiphias Gladius 418 Pounds," the title of which refers to the scientific name for the fish:
"...the 1920 season was not only the hardest ordeal we ever endured, but the most dangerous experience of any kind we ever had. Lassoing mountain lions, hunting the grizzly bear, and stalking the fierce tropical jaguar, former pastimes of ours, are hardly comparable to the pursuit of Xiphias gladius [broadbill swordfish]. It takes more time, patience, endurance, study, skill, nerve and strength, not to mention money, of any game known to me...."
Conventional sportfishing consists of three stages: the hooking, the fighting and the release, and it is easy for even an experienced angler to lose the fish, right up until the release. This challenge is the whole reason for the sport, in which not only the fisherman but the captain and crew must be in sync with the fish, ready to counter its dives, runs and jumps.
Overeagerness is responsible for many lost fish. Deep sea fishing reels have built-in alarms, a loud clicking noise triggered by the taking of bait or lures. The sound of the reel immediately raises the blood pressure of all on board, but patience is a must. Some game fish are very difficult to hook, even after they have taken the bait. Unless you are skilled, it is wise to leave the setting of the hook to the mate, and take over from there.
While stand-up fighting is becoming increasingly popular, the traditional method for large fish is to use a fighting chair, a chair set in the bow of the boat, which rotates, has footrests for exerting leverage, and a holder for the butt of the rod. After the strike, the angler jumps in the chair while the mate hooks the fish and brings the fisherman the rod. Then the action begins.
It is simply impossible to overpower even a fair-sized game fish, inconceivable for a large one. Early attempts to stop the prey from running will result in a broken line. Considering that the heaviest line fished has a breaking strength of 130 pounds, far below the weight of many fish, and the fish can exceed 60 miles per hour, it is futile to try to stop one of these runs.
Fish tire quickly, and sportfishing is a matter of give and take. When the fish runs, you let it go. When it slows, you reel line back in as fast as humanly possible, trying to keep slack out of the line. Sometimes the fish will turn and come back at you. Other times it will instinctively dive deep, taking the line straight down from the rod. All the while the captain will maneuver the boat, circling or even backing up to assist the angler in managing the line.
It is easier for the fish to take line than for the fisherman to get it back, and for this reason the fight often involves cramping forearms and aching backs. The legs are used to push off the footrests and pull the rod up. As the fish tires, progress is achingly slow. The angler uses the rod as a lever, pulling it up to gain a few feet of line, then dropping it quickly and frantically reeling to recover those precious few feet. This action may need to be repeated hundreds of times.
The only fights that last minutes are those the fish wins. Hours are more typical for landing a big fish. My shark still had most of the line when I lost him after 30 minutes, and showed no signs of tiring.
"Our captain told us fights typically last about a minute per pound," said Robert Pedrero, a California entrepreneur who recently traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in pursuit of blue marlin. "I hooked an 80-pound sailfish, which took about an hour and a half to land, so he was right on the money." This rule of thumb does not apply to the biggest fish, which take hours, not days, to catch.
The reason billfish are the most popular is because of their beautiful coloration and stunning aerial maneuvers. They will jump vertically well clear of the water, flip, or bound in and out in consecutive horizontal leaps. Occasionally a billfish will reward its hunters with the truly impressive display of seemingly "walking" on its tail, erect with its bill to the sky. For this reason, a good camera should be brought whenever you charter.
While fish are unpredictable, the acrobatics generally begin well into the fight. Ernest Hemingway's poor fisherman, the protagonist of The Old Man and The Sea, had to fight his giant dream marlin through two full nights before he got a glimpse of it, but it was worth the wait:
"The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver, and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out."
It should be remembered that Hemingway's old man had no crew, no motor, no rod and no reel, just a length of line. The average charter angler can expect to be back in port the same day he or she set out.
"The lure that Hemingway created of catching a big billfish lives on," says Ellen Peel, executive director of The Billfish Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the conservation of these most sought-after game fish.
Unfortunately, the excitement created by Hemingway and others led to destructive over-fishing of many of the world's most productive waters. Serious declines in numbers of billfish and tuna, particularly the swordfish, have threatened the survival of these species. According to Peel, "Years ago, you could catch 600- to 1000-pound swordfish, but there is now no place in the United States to reliably catch swords, and when they do it is usually well under a hundred pounds. Just for a recreational angler to catch one in the Atlantic is a rare event."
The Billfish Foundation and like-minded organizations began promoting catch and release or tag and release programs, where the tags are used by scientists to study fish migrations, and the results have been staggering. According to Peel, more than 90 percent of the billfish caught in the Atlantic are released, and in many states and countries release is mandatory.
A second development that promoted conservation was an improvement in taxidermy. No longer do most anglers return home with real skin mounts, which yellow with age. Taxidermists now create "release mounts," a fiberglass replica based on the size and weight of the fish, or a photo if available, allowing the catch to be released.
Even major tournaments have moved to a catch and release format, led by the world's most prestigious, the International Billfish Tournament of the Club Náutico de San Juan in Puerto Rico. The longest consecutively held tournament, it just completed its 43rd annual event. According to tournament director Luis Valldejuli, "We were the first to go to the release format. We also have a 100-point bonus for tagging." Prizes are awarded for boats, captains and anglers with the most releases.
Many anglers keep only their biggest fish in the hopes of breaking records, but even this is changing. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA), headquartered in Pompano Beach, Florida, is the keeper of all rules and records for fresh and saltwater game fish. The IGFA now certifies portable scales, so anglers can document record fish without bringing them to port. According to Jim Brown, the IGFA's assistant to the president, "We very much support the catch and release ethic. We allow the use of field scales and photos so record fish can be released."
One of the greatest appeals of sportfishing is the ease with which beginners can get involved. Typically, charter captains provide everything needed, from rods and reels to expertise. In major tourist destinations, would-be anglers can often arrange a charter on the spot by walking up to the docks, though it pays to make plans in advance.
Spur of the moment charter destinations include Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, where many records have been set; southern Florida, especially Key West, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale; Cabo San Lucas, Cozumel and Cancún, Mexico; and tourist destinations throughout the Caribbean.
Charters are either full- or half-day, shared or private. In a private charter, you pay for the whole boat, and can go alone or with a party of your choice. Many boats limit the number of passengers to six, although you may negotiate exceptions, especially if you have non-fishermen aboard. Patrons of shared boats are usually unaccompanied anglers looking to defray the cost with other like-minded fisherman, and once on board, will take turns and rotate strikes.
A full day is typically eight to nine hours, while a half is usually four. In locations where the good fishing is far offshore, you may lose considerable fishing time traveling back and forth, so a half day may not be worthwhile.
David Ritchie, editor of Marlin Magazine, the leading sportfishing publication, says, "Rates are affected by how far you have to go out, because of fuel costs. In Palm Beach it might be five miles, in Cape May, New Jersey, 80. It varies widely, between $300 to $1,500 per day."
Within North America, if fishing is readily available just offshore, such as in Hawaii, Florida or Puerto Rico, private charters are typically $500 to $700 for a full day and $300 to $400 for a half. Split charters are often available only as half days, for $100 to $150 per person.
Both captain and crew, usually one or two mates, generally expect tips, and mates may depend on them. Ritchie suggests tipping "as you would in a restaurant, 15 to 20 percent of the charter fee, more if you set a record or win a tournament." When making special requests, consider tipping more. Scott Nichols, a former charter captain who now works on fishery management for the state of Florida, fishes the more challenging light tackle, which forces the crew to work harder.
"I went down to Cancún for Memorial Day weekend and I caught 27 billfish in three days," says Nichols. "I had 43 bites, and just seeing that many fish in three days is amazing. I caught a couple on six-pound line, which is very hard to do, so I tipped an extra $50 above and beyond what we gave as a group. They worked really hard, and the boat was clean and well maintained."
Ideally, if you know you are going to fish while on vacation, it is best to arrange a charter in advance. This avoids the possibility of being shut out, especially during the busy season. More importantly, it allows you to select a reputable captain and boat.
"Most good boats have a lot of interest, and they are booked well in advance," says Pete Barrett, an experienced charter captain who is also editor of The Fisherman., a weekly trade publication. "Some customers book the same boat every year. In most places that do not have a heavy concentration of tourists, it's not usually a matter of walking up to the dock and finding a boat. For recommendations on a boat, contact fishing clubs, friends who've gone before, local tackle shops or fishing magazines."
The charter experience is very similar throughout the world, but there are subtle differences. Usually, you will be pursuing the prevalent game fish for that location and time of year, and the crew will stock appropriate bait or lures. If you have special wants, such as fishing for tuna where most people seek marlin, let the crew know in advance. Some boats also charge an extra fee for live bait.
The crew typically provides coolers full of ice, and it is up to you to bring lunch, beverages and cigars. Sometimes soda is provided, but many customers bring beer. In rare cases, it is the local custom for the charterer to provide lunch for the crew as well, so ask in advance to avoid an awkward situation. While a responsible crew will not share your beer, they may well share your cigars, so bring plenty.
Sunscreen is a must, as are polarized sunglasses. If you do not have experience at sea, motion sickness medication is a good idea. Captain Morrow estimates that on nearly half his charters, someone gets seasick.
One of the most important questions to ask up front is: "Who gets to keep the fish?" This helps to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Large fish are typically released, but smaller tunas or mahi mahi are quite edible and may be kept for food or bait. Often the crew will carve a fish into steaks for you to take back and grill. Ritchie advises checking rates and local policies. In some areas you may pay more for the charter fee but get to keep the fish. In other venues, the crew will keep the catch, but fees are usually lower.
Light tackle fishing is one of the reasons for the resurgence of the sport. The popularity of freshwater fly fishing has led many of its disciples to the ocean, as well as conventional offshore anglers looking for new challenges. Using very light rods, reels and lines, they attempt to land the same fish that are so difficult to catch on heavy equipment, giving their prey even more opportunity to break free. Light tackle fishermen also stand, using a harness to hold the butt of the rod rather than the fighting chair.
This form of sportfishing requires a skilled crew, and if you are interested, inquire as to their experience with light tackle. Some crews may not own this equipment, and many serious anglers bring their own rods and reels.
If you are concerned with potential record catches, make sure the crew adheres to IGFA regulations, or your catch may be voided. Fishing has as many rules as golf, and sharing your rod with another angler or a mate during the long fight will void your record. Tournaments have different policies about the mates' roles, including whether they can bait lines or set hooks.
Tournaments are often open even to inexperienced anglers, and can be a lot of fun, as well as extremely lucrative. Some are steeped in tradition, others in cash. There are no cash prizes at Club Náutico's prestigious tournament, for instance, but the mere $1,000 entry fee provides four full days of fishing on well-appointed boats, meals and nightly parties, awards banquet and all the rum and beer you can consume. A BMW is awarded to anyone who can break the tournament record; the current mark of 719 pounds was set in 1976.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 in Cape May, New Jersey, which, despite its name, awarded $1,133,000 in prizes last [NOTE: 1996] year. Big-money sportfishing tournaments are going on constantly all over the world.
Sportfishing is a simple hobby that can easily turn into an obsession. What may begin as a day here or there during your vacations can quickly turn into weeklong trips to fishing lodges in Guatemala, Panama and Costa Rica. Quality sportfishing boats are highly specialized and easily run into the seven figures. The most ardent anglers pursue sportfishing's ultimate accomplishment, the grand slam, catching one of each of the four species of billfish in a single day.
Larry Olmsted writes frequently on sports and travel for Investors Business Daily. The World's Best Sportfishing
Marlin Magazine editor David Ritchie regularly rates some of the world's best locales for big game sportfishing. Here are my choices from his various compilations:
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: The best fishing on North America's Pacific coast; plenty of marlin and sailfish, especially in the summer.
Costa Rica: Reliable fishing for all four species of billfish year-round.
Panama: Black marlin year-round and other billfish in the summer, with one of the world's best known sportfishing venues, the Tropic Star Lodge.
Cairns, Australia: Near the Great Barrier reef, this is the destination for the really big black marlin, over half a ton. Add on many other billfish and most secondary game fish, and this is the choice of many anglers. Australia is also one of the few active shark-fishing destinations.
South Florida: Year-round action for sailfish; a great destination for first-timers, with the occasional blue marlin, especially in the Keys.
Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico: Between Cozumel, Cancún and other nearby towns, some of the best, most professional billfishing in the world.
Kona, Hawaii: The steep drop-off from this volcanic island offers year-round fishing for big billfish and yellowfin tuna, as well as many smaller tunas.
Madeira: Off the northwest coast of Africa, anglers go to this remote island destination for one reason: enormous fish.
Outer Banks, North Carolina: Discovered in recent years, this Mid-Atlantic destination has some of the finest fishing in the world. Big blue marlin, white marlin, yellowfin tuna and this country's best shot at the giant bluefin tuna.
Midway Island: No one has been permitted to fish these central Pacific waters for more than a hundred years, until this year. In an environmentally friendly manner, one charter company, Midway Sportfishing Inc., has been selected to offer the opportunity at trophy marlin and tuna at this remote outpost some 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu.